Answering the Argument Against Accountability: Part I

EXXONKNEWS plays devil’s advocate – against itself. We contain multitudes.

In previous issues, we’ve listed the reasons we think holding the fossil fuel industry accountable is so critically important—for the sake of a livable planet and a functional democracy with access to truth, not “alternative facts”.

But helmed as they are by billionaires who’ve benefited immensely from upholding the status quo, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that oil companies have a lot to say in their own defense. And even though they’ve used their unbelievable wealth to dominate and obfuscate the climate conversation for decades, we are, after all, all about fairness. 

That is why we’d like to spend some time on a couple of the industry’s arguments against holding them accountable, which are literally being advertised in the public sphere. Watch us blow them up.

Image credit: Giphy

“We're all responsible for climate change. Oil companies can't be blamed for responding to our demand for their product.”

Are we really going to pretend that a single mom with two kids and two jobs is just as responsible for climate change as Exxon? And that she can solve the problem by pulling herself up by her bootstraps and… doing what exactly? Buying a Tesla? This bogus narrative works, to some degree, because unlike oil companies most people feel compelled to take responsibility for their actions. We wring our hands at humanity, lamenting our inability to plan for the long-term. And in the end, we feel helpless, small, guilty, and eventually, apathetic. (Lots of great writers have covered this post-gaslighting climate malaise, but I recommend Mary Annaïse Heglar’s piece in Vox to start). 

The oil industry is smart this way, because they’ve used American laissez-faire-isms to distract us from the real culprit: themselves. The fact is that no one has any choice but to heat their homes and drive their cars with energy sources that are actually available to them, and almost all of this currently depends on fossil fuels. Why is that so?  Because the oil industry has effectively blocked all alternatives, as they simultaneously, aggressively and successfully denied that climate change was real enough to warrant enacting policies and promoting the alternative energy sources needed to prevent it. 

Saying we’re all responsible is like saying that smokers are responsible for being addicted to cigarettes, even when tobacco companies denied tobacco was addictive as they engineered cigarettes to be more addictive. Or like saying the thousands of opioid deaths each year were the fault of addicted victims, not the opioid manufacturers whose lobbying, fake science and conspiracies led to that tragic epidemic. We are not all responsible. Very specific companies and the powerful men who made their decisions, on the other hand, are. 

“Climate activists are just using the courts to get around a Congress that isn’t doing their bidding. The courts are the wrong venue to address climate change.”

This week, an Exxon attorney repeated that line of reasoning in an attempt to move the Massachusetts Attorney General’s climate fraud case against the company out of state court:

“It is clear that although nominally premised on state law and cloaked as consumer protection, this lawsuit at its core seeks to restrict the production, sale, and use of fossil fuels, attempting to usurp policy and foreign affairs roles properly reserved to the federal government,” he wrote.

The same misleading argument was made yet again by the defense during New York City’s appeal of its climate cost recovery suit in November. 

Let’s get this straight: Congress is the right and only place to decide on climate policy and regulation. But the courts are the best place to decide who pays for the damages, and how much. These cases are not and never have been about solving climate change. Anyone who reads the filings will learn that. They are about seeking just compensation for damages knowingly caused by the makers of fossil fuel products. Whenever a company knowingly puts a product into commerce that will cause harm, consumers can take them to court and ask that they help repair that harm—and that is all these cases are asking the courts to do. At no point have the plaintiffs asked the courts to regulate the fossil fuel industry or their emissions in these cases. 

Remember when mom told you not to put words in her mouth?

The oil industry is kind of like a petulant kid lying to his mom about feeding his goldfish for a week just so he can stay out with his friends every day after school. At the end of the week, the goldfish is found dead at the bottom of the bowl, and his mom grounds him for lying and confiscates his allowance.

His reaction was to stomp through the house, yelling at his mom for banning him from ever owning a pet again for the rest of his life, and complaining about how unfair it was.

Wait—what? Is that what mom said, or are you twisting her words to make her punishment seem out of line? That’s one spoiled little… oh wait. 

Big Oil is pointing the finger at everyone but themselves. These aren’t just neutral points of view—they are more tactics of manipulation from an industry that knows how to play the game. 

Anger Into Action

We’re adding a section on what you can do to help hold those who are actually causing the problem accountable. This week, you can sign a petition from the environmental NGO ClientEarth demanding that (misleading) advertising by the fossil fuel industry come with a tobacco-style health disclaimer warning about dangers to people and the climate.

ICYMI News Roundup

Another new section! We’ll be giving a few quick highlights from the news each week. 

This week:

Have ideas for things you want to see covered here? Comments? Questions? Just wanna kvetch? Email me at emily@climateintegrity.org

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter. Until next time!